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Review: Unearthing the Late Curiosities of Tennessee Williams

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Once mortals become immortal, it’s easy to forget how precariously they stumbled through life. That is certainly true of Tennessee Williams, who ensured his place in the pantheon of American playwriting with his early hits “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but spent his last two decades — after “The Night of the Iguana,” in 1961 — in what Hilton Als calls “a kind of critical purgatory.”

But critics at their most vital aren’t a baying wolf pack chasing weakened prey. They’re champions of the overlooked, the underpraised, the misunderstood. In that spirit, Als, a writer for The New Yorker who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2017, is asking for a reconsideration of some late Williams works.

In “Selections From Tennessee Williams,” the second episode of the two-part New York Theater Workshop podcast “Hilton Als Presents,” he plucks excerpts from three plays dismissed in their own time: “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” from 1969; “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” which succumbed in 1975 en route to Broadway; and “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” Williams’s final Broadway premiere in his lifetime. It opened in 1980 on his 69th birthday and was met with such a pile-on of viciously mocking reviews that it closed after just two weeks.

These plays are not exceptional in Williams’s oeuvre as considerations of masculinity, sexuality or the divided self — though, as Als notes, each includes a male artist character.

Directed by Als, and with skillful audio production and editing by Alex Barron, the podcast does not always succeed in conveying, with voice and stage directions, what we need to envision.

The scene from “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” starring Raúl Castillo as a band leader and Marin Ireland as a sexually rapacious belle, feels too untethered from context to add up to anything. But each of the other plays is memorable for a standout performance and for glimmers of beauty in the text.

The longest excerpt, from “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” at first seems an airless exercise: an encounter between a brittle yet lascivious American woman (Nadine Malouf) and the Japanese barman (James Yaegashi) she is harassing. It comes to life only belatedly, with the entrance of Reed Birney as her husband, Mark, an exceedingly drunken painter struggling to maintain his dignity and harness his artistry. It is an utterly lived-in performance, edged with terror and mirth. (John Lahr, in his biography of Williams, calls this play “a fascinating dissection of the perversity of his psyche,” and he is correct.)

“In the beginning,” Mark says, his hands shaky, paint all over his suit, “a new style of work can be stronger than you, but you learn to control it. It has to be controlled.”

Williams, at that point, was not doing so well at controlling his art, his addictions or his emotional frailty.

The other magnetic turn is by Michelle Williams in “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” which the playwright labeled “a ghost play,” about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Zelda — a role originated by Geraldine Page on Broadway — Williams evades the traps that lie in wait in Tennessee Williams’s women: the masks and artifices of gender and class that made him famous for writing diva roles, and that often expose those characters to ridicule. Against the odds, Michelle Williams locates a human being.

“Are you certain, Scott, that I fit the classification of dreamy young Southern lady?” Zelda asks her husband (played by André Holland). “Damn it, Scott. Sorry, wrong size, it pinches! Can’t wear that shoe, too confining.”

Tennessee Williams, too, felt pinched and confined by expectations. He was forever in competition with his younger self.

Als’s production doesn’t persuasively argue for these late plays. But it does accomplish what a critic is meant to do when elevation is in order — to urge close examination of something that might otherwise escape our gaze.

Perhaps, taking Als’s cue, some brilliant director will see a way.

Hilton Als Presents: Selections From Tennessee Williams
Through July 31; nytw.org. At anchor.fm/nytw79 and major podcast platforms. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.

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